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Friday, January 23, 2009

Books: A Memoir

Counting the two books that Larry McMurtry coauthored with Diana Ossana, Books: A Memoir is his forty-first book. I have read all but a handful of them (and will get around to those eventually) and was a regular at Booked Up, McMurtry’s antiquarian bookstore during the relatively short period it had a Houston address. I only ran into McMurtry once in all my visits to Booked Up and, on that occasion, he was involved in what seemed to me to be a detailed business discussion with the store’s manager so I decided not to bother him. I have long regretted that missed opportunity to talk books with a bookman of McMurtry’s experience, so I see Books: A Memoir as the next best thing to a sit-down with him. In fact, Books is written in such a rambling conversational, style that I imagine it to be closely akin to what speaking to him would actually be like.

The 109 chapters of Books cover McMurtry’s love of books from his boyhood to the present day, each chapter being a little snippet of information regarding how he became the bookman he is today. It is almost a stream-of-consciousness format, with some names and references occurring in more than one chapter and some turns of phrase being used so many times that they become McMurtry catch phrases. Some would suggest that McMurtry needed a better editor for the book; I say that it is exactly that kind of thing that makes the book seem so much like an actual conversation with the man.

The biggest surprise to me is that McMurtry seems prouder of, and happier with, his success at creating several great antiquarian bookstores and a huge personal book collection than he is of all of the success and awards coming from the books he himself has written. That tells more about him than anything else in his story – he is primarily a book lover. That he is able to make his living by writing books is, for him, the wonderful bonus that allows him to indulge his first love, acquiring fine books written by others.

Larry McMurtry has strong opinions when it comes to books, bookstores and readers and he shares many of them in this memoir. Here are a few samples of what he had to say:
“But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself; savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.”

“I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support – reading – is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one.”

“For the twenty years or so in which I reviewed for newspapers regularly, I mainly reviewed fiction, with now and then a biography or two mixed in. If one adds them up, I suspect I reviewed several hundred novels – or at least I reported on them – and the result was that I burned out as a reader of fiction.”

“No one claimed book collecting was rational.”

“Many bookmen, and some of the best among them, rarely, if ever, read. They acquire and they estimate and they sell; they collate, measure, hype. They read catalogues, they look in bibliographies, they submit quotes. But they don’t have time to read.”

“I don’t like the audiobooks but at least they preserve the human longing for narrative, and for a certain linkage between the author and the reader. A story gets told, and loyalties to authors might also be developed.”

“This is not likely to be a popular view, but the cruel fact is that many writers go on writing after it would have been better for them to stop. Of course, it’s not human nature to stop when you’re winning - or even when you think you’re winning, which is more often the case.”

When I’m writing I often spin out my daily pages as rapidly as possible, in order to get back to whatever I am reading.”
I’m happy that I finally managed to have that conversation with Mr. McMurtry, one-sided as it had to be.

Rated at: 4.0

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